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Laura Perls (1905-1990): Co-Founder of Gestalt Therapy

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 50 - March 2000

Today we commemorate one of the founders of Gestalt Therapy, Laura Perls, who died ten years ago.

Born Lore Posner, she married Frederick S Perls in 1930 in Germany.

At the time, Fritz, who had his heart set on becoming a psychoanalyst, had already completed his medical degree. Gestalt Therapy was some twenty years in the future, but the groundwork was being laid.

Laura was born in Pforzheim, studied psychology at Frankfurt/Main University and received a doctorate in science. Among her teachers were A Gelb, Kurt Goldstein (author of a classical textbook The Organism), Max Wertheimer (one of the founders of the academic Gestalt Psychology theoretical movement), and philosophers Paul Tillich and Martin Buber.

Laura met Fritz when they were both working at the Frankfurt Psychological Institute, where he was the assistant to Kurt Goldstein.

After completing her education, she went into psychoanalysis with Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and Karl Landauer in Frankfurt. She later started her own psychoanalytical practice in Berlin under the supervision of Otto Fenichel. However, their life in Germany was interrupted by the rise of Nazism and in 1933, fearing for the future, the couple fled to Amsterdam. Seeking refuge in America along with many others, they were denied immigration papers. The developments in Europe were looking more and more hopeless as war clouds spread, but they were saved at last by the English psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones (best known for his three-volume biography, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud). Through his many international contacts, Jones was able to arrange passage to South Africa for the beleaguered pair.

Fritz was eventually able to affiliate with the psychoanalytic association in Johannesburg, while Laura worked and also took care of their two children. While the war stormed in Europe, they passed a tranquil decade in South Africa, and collaborated on what became their first book, Ego, Hunger and Aggression. First published in 1942, it was re-published in London after the war, and later re-issued in America in 1969. This signals the beginnings of a new mode of psychotherapy, jettisoning some of the rigidities and rituals of Freud.

Here, psychoanalysis is criticised from the semantic and existentialist viewpoints. Both Laura and Fritz were influenced by the 'holistic' philosophical notions of the famous South Africa leader, Jan Smuts.

In Laura's own words: "In Ego, Hunger and Aggression, we changed from the historical-archeological Freudian viewpoint to the existential-experiential, from piecemeal association psychology to a holistic approach, from the purely verbal to the organismic, from interpretation to direct awareness in the Here and Now, from transference to actual contact, from the concept of the Ego as a substance having boundaries to a concept of it as the very boundary phenomenon itself, being the actual contact function of identification and alienation."

So there you have a succinct summary of where modern psychotherapy was heading. During the next decade, all of these notions, which were rather inchoate at that time, were developed further into a more organised coherent theory, which was published as Gestalt Therapy (l951, published in New York).

After World War II, the family moved to New York, settling in upper Manhattan. The rest is history. In collaboration with Paul Goodman, the two of them established the first Gestalt Therapy Institute in New York at their home on West 96th Street, a place with an old European flavour that I was to visit many times during the 1960s and 1970s.

The Institute became a haven for psychologists, philosophers, and others who didn't fit into the rather stodgy psychotherapeutic establishment of the conformist world of l950s America.

Laura kept the Institute going, while Fritz became more and more restless. Many of her colleagues and students tried to persuade her to write a history of Gestalt Therapy, but she left no memoir behind her.

When Fritz began his vagabond years, travelling around the country and giving workshops for professionals in many cities from East Coast to West Coast, Laura stayed in New York as the president of the New York Institute. Occasionally, Fritz would return to New York, only to resume his circuit riding. Eventually, he more or less settled at the Esalen Institute on California's Pacific Coast. Finally, during the last year of his life, 1969-1970, he set up a commune at Lake Cowichan, in the Pacific Northwest.

While Fritz developed a more flamboyant, theatrical 'California' style and became somewhat of a hippie, with flowing white beard and flower-power clothes, Laura continued the more traditional East Coast style of Gestalt Therapy. At this time, Fritz specialised in razzle-dazzle workshops for professionals, focusing on one person in the 'hot seat' with the rest of the group acting as a kind of chorus in the background. He preferred this method in order to introduce his new therapy to other psychologists and psychiatrists. The New York school, on the other hand, with Laura at the helm, stuck to a more egalitarian group style, with each member of the group participating.

There was also more individual work with patients and fewer weekend workshop demonstrations.

Laura continued her work, leading long-term training groups until the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, as is true of many fine therapists, she did not put many of her ideas to paper. She left only a handful of articles, a few case studies, and some interviews. I recall that when my own book was first published (in 1977), one of the hostile reviewers complained that I did not mention more of the writings of Laura Perls! He was an isolated academic at Uppsala University, and perhaps unaware that she published little.

I recall some things that she said during training sessions. Asked by someone if she expressed her own problems or personal history at any time while practising psychotherapy, she replied: "I will describe some problems and experiences from my own life or from others if I expect this to give support to the particular patient for a fuller realisation of his own position and potentiality. In other words, only if it may help him take the next step."

Again, asked about neurosis, she replied: "If we redefine neurosis as a state of malcoordination of contact and support functions, and the different neuroses as different types of malcoordination, we may define the goal of therapy as the achievement of optimal coordination of contact and support functions."


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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